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Tuesday, February 13, 2024

Opinion | Why Reparations For Slavery Are Long Overdue - The New York Times

What Do We Owe Black Americans?

A finger points at a map of Illinois.
Eileen Meslar/Reuters

By Maura Cheeks

"Maura Cheeks is the author of the novel “Acts of Forgiveness.”

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In my debut novel, a family retraces their lineage in order to be eligible for the nation’s first federal reparations program for Black Americans. When I was selling my novel in 2021, it was pitched to publishers as “speculative fiction, but only slightly.” I hadn’t specifically identified that genre, but I could see how it made sense: Up to that point, only one U.S. city, Evanston, Ill., had actually issued reparations in the form of housing grants. The idea that the United States could ever collectively support a national reparations policy for Black people seemed, well, the stuff of fiction.

Since then, reparations task forces and commissions have been created in California, Illinois, New York and Pennsylvania. State and citywide reparations initiatives offer a unique opportunity: They can look at specific harms perpetrated in a community, like redlining or wrongful drug convictions, and offer redress for citizens and the families who lived there. In Evanston, for example, reparations are being funded through revenue generated from a cannabis tax. If you can prove that you were a Black resident of African descent between 1919 and 1969 or are the direct descendant of one, or that you suffered housing discrimination related to the city’s policies after 1969, then you are eligible for a payment. As of August, the city had distributed just over $1 million, with more funding on the way.

But what happens if you do not live in a community that pursues reparations? Slavery was a complex multistate system enabled by the federal government and protected by a sweeping body of law. The same government later promoted and propped up segregationist policies and failed to uphold the values of the 14th and 15th amendments across the Jim Crow South. To address systemic inequalities rooted in federal law, a federal reparations policy is required. One city, even multiple cities, or states, can’t compensate individuals for what an entire nation has done.

I decided to write about reparations after researching the racial wealth gap, the statistics of which continue to paint a picture of widespread systemic failure. According to the Federal Reserve’s 2022 Survey of Consumer Finances, the typical white family has about six times as much wealth as the typical Black family, despite the fact that between 2019 and 2022 the typical Black family’s wealth rose at about twice the rate of the typical white family’s during the same period. The Black-white homeownership gap has been little changed for decades; in 2021, according to the National Association of Realtors, the Black homeownership rate was 44 percent compared to 72.7 percent among White Americans. White college graduates have over seven timesthe amount of wealth than Black college graduates. If you believe the increasing wealth gap among Black and white Americans is worth closing (and, pointedly, not everyone does), then it’s hard to read these statistics without intuiting that a federal intervention must be part of the equation.

I am both encouraged by more local reparations policies and wary of what we lose if we rely on them alone. In my novel, I imagined a federal program because I wanted to explore how it could also facilitate psychological healing across generations. What might it mean for Black Americans to feel that their country sees their pain and wants to make it right? If we could acknowledge what we did wrong so that we could begin moving forward?

Statistics are numbers that don’t tell the whole story. They don’t show what it’s like for a middle-class Black man wearing a hoodie to be denied entry to spaces that white people in the same attire are allowed to patronize. Or what it’s like for a Black woman with natural hair to receive sidelong glances in an interview and then be denied a job offer.

While reparations obviously won’t solve racism in America, they are still a necessary step. As Ta-Nehisi Coates argued almost 10 years ago in the pivotal essay “The Case for Reparations,” reparations go beyond financial recourse. He wrote: “What I’m talking about is more than recompense for past injustices — more than a handout, a payoff, hush money, or a reluctant bribe. What I’m talking about is a national reckoning that would lead to spiritual renewal.”

The word “reparations” has become something of a punchline, and the term invokes anger and frustration across the political spectrum. Trying to prove why reparations might be both worthwhile and realistic can feel like a Sisyphean task. The thought of increased tax rates or inflation to fund a national program can inspire panic. But as William A. Darity Jr. and A. Kirsten Mullen point out in their 2020 book “From Here to Equality,” a reparations proposal could span several years, with money disbursed in installments and potentially only after applicants apply to use the funds to purchase a home or start a business.

If there is doubt that the United States can afford this, consider how quickly the country mobilized to provide $800 billion for the Paycheck Protection Program during the pandemic or hundreds of billions of dollars to bail out banks in 2008. Then consider what the public reaction might be if there was a Black reparations program with even a tiny fraction of those price tags. I find this to be a helpful thought experiment — it is not a matter of if we can do it, but rather whether we want to. It is a matter of acknowledging what we value, and deciding whether atonement for roughly 250 years of brutalization makes the cut.

In the book, I imagine what conditions would have to be true for the United States to move closer toward a federal reparations program. If those conditions were met, what might it actually look like for one family? What might be the pros and cons? Part of the promise of creating art in America is that it allows us to examine difficult topics while illuminating universal truths. It helps us acknowledge who we are, while preparing us for the way forward. As my protagonist’s grandfather says to his family: “I never thought in my lifetime, son. Not in my lifetime.”

It’s unclear if or when America will make amends to Black families. But if we do, it’s likely that someone, somewhere, will remark in relief at the recompense long overdue.

Maura Cheeks is the author of the novel “Acts of Forgiveness” and the owner of Liz’s Book Bar, a bookstore, cafe and wine bar planned for Brooklyn.

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Opinion | Why Reparations For Slavery Are Long Overdue - The New York Times

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